Last month, Ji Sizun (紀斯尊) received the news that he had won a prestigious human rights distinction, the Cao Shunli (曹順利) Memorial Award, in honor of the veteran Chinese activist who died in 2014 in police custody, after being denied needed medical treatment for months.
It would be a little more than one month until he himself died while under the watch of state security.
Ji, one of China’s most prominent “barefoot lawyers,” spent most of the last decade in prison in his native Fujian Province.
He was in a semi-comatose state when he finished his most recent sentence of four-and-a-half years in late April and was immediately sent to a hospital. On 10 July, two months after leaving prison, Ji, 69, died of unknown causes.
He joined a growing list of imprisoned political activists who have died after being denied adequate medical treatment. His death came three days before the two year anniversary of the death of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波). Last month, a Uighur writer Nurmuhammad Tohti died after being detained in an internment camp in Xinjiang.
“For human rights defenders in China, prison sentences are increasingly turning into death sentences,” said Wang Yaqiu (王亞秋), China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
While China’s detention facilities have long been criticized for their conditions, denying medical treatment to prisoners deemed “sensitive” is becoming increasingly common.
Ji suffered intestinal cancer in prison and applications for medical parole were repeatedly refused, his lawyers said.
“Authorities are deliberately withholding medical treatment as a form of torture to punish, humiliate,” said Frances Eve, deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). “While we have documented deaths of activists and ethnic and religious minorities for years, we are seeing more and more die in recent years under [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s (習近平) brutal crackdown on civil society.”
Ten people are on a medical watch list maintained by CHRD, including citizen journalists, rights lawyers, one writer and several activists.
Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence on charges of “splittism,” seeking independence of Xinjiang, is also on the list.
Rights advocates say authorities have been emboldened by largely muted international reaction. Ji’s death has gone mostly unremarked outside of the human rights world.
In Fujian, the loss of the longtime advocate known as Lao Ji (old Ji, 老紀) has been felt.
Ji, a self-taught lawyer, operated from a small storefront in Fuzhou, where former colleagues said his small office was always crowded because he often did not charge his clients and sometimes paid their legal fees himself.
He often worked on behalf of farmers and other rural residents trying to bring their grievances to the government.
“He was always challenging injustice and what was not fair, so these officers wanted to bring him under control,” said Lin Hongnan (林洪楠), one of Ji’s lawyers.
In 2008, when Ji heard officials had opened “protest zones” for residents to freely demonstrate during the Beijing Olympics, he traveled to the capital to apply for a permit to protest on behalf of his clients.
Ji was detained and later sentenced to prison for three years on charges of forging official documents and seals, his first prison term.
After being released, instead of keeping a low profile, he went back to work, advocating for the rights of petitioners and butting heads with local authorities.
“Everyone knows the risks are very high and you are likely to be caught. He would rather take the risk. He was not afraid,” said Liu Xiaoyuan (劉曉原), who was previously Ji’s lawyer.
Ji helped expose the case of Pandun village where local authorities had seized at least 80 percent of people’s land. The case was reported in the state-run People’s Daily.
Ji was seized by authorities months later and charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” This would be Ji’s second and last time in prison.
“His death is a great loss. There are still many petitioners who want Ji Sizun, the barefoot lawyer to defend their rights. Now that he is gone, we all grieve,” said Jiang Zhi An, a petitioner that Ji had helped.
Ji’s death has continued to reverberate. Police detained two friends of Ji on suspicion of writing articles raising questions about the circumstances of his passing.
Before his death, doctors told his family his condition had worsened because of internal bleeding, but did not give more details.
His family was not given updates or access to his records, and were pressured into signing over power of attorney to authorities, allowing for Ji’s body to be cremated before any investigation could be done.
Calls to the Xiangcheng district hospital in Zhangzhou, Ji’s hometown, where Ji died, went unanswered. Provincial officials did not respond to faxed questions.
One of his sisters told the Guardian: “My little brother is already dead. There’s nothing more to talk about.”
Friends and rights advocates disagree, and have called for his work to be remembered.
During his first detention after attempting to protest during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Ji reportedly kept a diary.
He wrote: “I broke the small bamboo branches on the riverside, but saved one drowning person who struggled in the river. The work was more than enough.”
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